On the record: Europe has bad experiences with walls. We try to tear them down, says Christian Leffler

"There’s no doubt the Trump administration will present us with strong challenges. It’s still too early to say exactly what these will be," said Christian Leffler.

Written by Srijana Mitra Das | Updated: February 11, 2017 12:23:20 am
Christian Leffler Christian Leffler

Christian Leffler is Deputy Secretary General, Economic and Global Issues at the EU’s European External Action Service. Speaking with Srijana Mitra Das, Leffler discussed Donald Trump, Europe’s migrant crisis, Brexit, terror attacks — and walls:

How will the EU engage with President Trump?

Well, we bear in mind the words of President Obama after the US election: “The office is stronger than the man.” We have a hugely close relationship with the US at every level — political, economic, civil. We’re also very close partners on the international stage. We’ve had differences in the past; we’ll have them in the future — but it’s a grown-up relationship where we can handle differences. There’s no doubt the Trump administration will present us with strong challenges. It’s still too early to say exactly what these will be.

But on Europe, Trump’s already said accepting migrants was a “catastrophe”, which Germany embraced and Britain escaped.

The EU has a long tradition of accepting migrants. We all have an international legal obligation to offer protection to refugees. We can’t say whether this is opportune or not if we want to live up to our own commitments. Migration is profoundly human. Europe itself has an ageing population; there is a demographic issue long-term. Migration is a question of managing migrant flows. In 2015-16, we saw a sudden surge in numbers; arrivals tripled, quadrupled in four-five months. That created big challenges. But Angela Merkel was right in saying, we will cope. And they did. Those people are now in housing, their children are in school, they’re finding jobs. They’re being absorbed.

Migration “crises” happen regularly. In the ’70s, we had the boat people from Vietnam. In the ’80s, we had migratory movements in Africa, Latin America. Now, we have migratory pressures looking towards Europe. We need to address this long-term — make migration a choice, rather than a necessity.

Meanwhile though, you have the far right rising, anti-austerity resentment of the EU growing — and Brexit. Isn’t the idea of Europe folding up?

No. I disagree. The UK vote has a complex background. It’s not black or white. That process will now be about us finding a new relationship with the UK. They had their border controls anyway. They weren’t part of the Schengen common area. There was freedom of movement for people from the EU — how that will be handled, we don’t know yet. The UK will have to tell us what they want.

Reports suggest they don’t want it.

Well, reports also suggest they want a compromise which gives the highest degree of free movement for UK citizens in Europe — of which there are about as many as the other way around. The issue wasn’t the movement of European citizens as much as that surge of people from outside in 2015-16 — that brought it to the top of the political agenda;it generated a debate on newcomers in Europe. The issue has been picked up by right-wing parties across Europe. But many of these have shifted from one issue to another, depending on circumstances. So, this is the favourite issue of the day.

On austerity measures, Greece, Spain and Portugal see real progress now. Spain is actually one of the EU’s fastest growing countries. They ask themselves where they’d be without EU support, without the huge transfers of resources to stabilise their economies. They needed austerity to stabilise their own economies. There is sometimes a grudging recognition that they’re better off within a common framework than on their own. After Brexit, in opinion polls across Europe, support for the EU has gone up — actually, it’s gone up in the UK too.

Yet, after repeated attacks, there is a charge that the EU leaves its population vulnerable to terrorism.

Look at recent attacks in Europe. Virtually all the perpetrators were European, most born and brought up in Europe, all with European passports — it’s nothing to do with recent migratory flows. Historically, terrorist violence in Europe peaked in the late ’70s, with the IRA in Britain — now, we’re not even at a quarter of that. But now, we have social media. That makes a big difference — it amplifies immediately. But we forget that Europe has gone through very troubling times before, with the IRA, ETA, the Red Brigade in Germany, etc. So, let’s put this in some perspective. Of course it is governments’ responsibility to protect its citizens and that has spurred European governments to work closely together — and with India — on coordinating counter-terrorism across regions.

So, we won’t see the EU building a wall anytime soon?

No. Europe has bad experiences with walls. We try to tear them down.

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